A Fresh IDEA
Studies show that diverse teams drive better business performance, and companies with more diversity become more innovative, resilient, and better able to respond to complex challenges, according to research from PNAS, a peer reviewed journal of the National Academy of Sciences.
However, a study from Harvard Business Review found that nearly 75% of employees in underrepresented groups don’t feel they’ve personally benefited from their companies’ diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Some organizations are now expanding beyond DEI to IDEA: Inclusivity, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility.
Press coverage has brought several of these issues to the forefront when allegations surfaced at different attractions. Effective IDEA initiatives can do much more than avoid a lawsuit or bad press.
When an attraction’s team reflects the communities they serve—whether it’s people of different races, ages, abilities, religions, sexual orientations, gender identities, or socioeconomic backgrounds—it promotes a sense of belonging for everyone.
“[If] you see somebody working at a park who’s in a wheelchair and you’re in a wheelchair or you have family members in a wheelchair, that changes your thought process from the very beginning,” says Adrea Gibbs, ICAE, senior director, core operations at Meow Wolf, which creates immersive art experiences, and a member of IAAPA’s IDEA Task Force. “That’s a really important human factor that needs to be calculated into this.”
Here’s a look at how operators can create welcoming environments, foster allyship, and reinforce inclusivity, diversity, equity, and accessibility.
Creating more diverse and inclusive teams starts with rethinking recruitment. Gibbs points out that many companies post job listings on their websites or through social media, which may exclude potential employees who aren’t online.
“Reach out to community organizations that work with individuals with disabilities,” Gibbs says. Many of those organizations have job training programs that prepare people to work in guest experiences or food service, so they could be an untapped resource. She also suggests talking to respected veterans groups to tap into veterans seeking new job opportunities.
Gibbs recommends that when recruiting new talent, attractions owners need to listen to that community’s needs instead of making assumptions.
What separates the organizations making meaningful changes from those who are paying lip service is “authentically hearing voices of community members that you’re seeking to include,” says Dr. Susie Wise, an educator and author of “Design for Belonging: How to Build Inclusion and Collaboration in Your Communities.”
Conversations with community groups may illuminate barriers that operators hadn’t realized might discourage applications or lead to employee turnover from certain groups. Not having transportation or a place to wash a work uniform are potential barriers to employment that operators could solve by arranging shuttle service or adding an on-site laundromat, says Gibbs. “The goodwill that’s being created will outweigh [the cost],” she adds. Better morale and retention are other potential benefits to meeting employees’ needs.
If photos on an attraction website or in recruiting materials show only employees of a certain race or age, others may not feel comfortable applying. “I think we should be putting a better representation of how many different types of people could come into this job,” says Anthony Palermo, co-founder of Connect&Go, an attraction management platform, and co-chair of IAAPA’s IDEA Task Force. This could include women and people of color in leadership positions and people of different ages and abilities working together.
Onboarding, training, and beyond
After hiring, onboarding and training are another key part of the employee experience. Rather than implementing an IDEA program in response to high turnover or a negative guest experience, Dr. Ronnie Gladden, a professor at Cincinnati State College and diversity leadership entrepreneur (who uses they/them pronouns), recommends taking a more proactive approach. “Companies that already have invested in that infrastructure…are going to be much more prepared to adapt,” they say. By learning how to respectfully interact with people from all backgrounds, employees will have better interactions with each other and guests.
Meow Wolf’s employee onboarding includes modules in sensitivity and accessibility. “It’s culturally driven by our organization, and it’s founded on knowledge and education from prior experiences by team members,” Gibbs says. “I think that’s where the strength in that program lies.” She created these modules drawing from community resources, but other organizations outsource IDEA training to companies that specialize in this area.
The company revisits this content throughout the year with panels featuring members of the local community. These panels often align with special months, such as Black History Month (February) or LGBTQ+ Pride Month (June). “You should continually be upgrading it, modifying it, adjusting it, and being informed by your team members,” Gibbs says.
Gladden believes this training shouldn’t be treated as one and done, so they recommend creating a structure where it happens on a regular basis. It needn’t be stuffy, though. Gladden adds that it could take the form of a speaker series, comedy, or videos, for instance. “Find a way to align it back to what’s most relevant to the brand of that business and the operations that they have,” they say.
When employees feel a sense of belonging, they can help carry that into positive guest experiences. But operators also need to take a close look at their marketing and guest experience. “It’s about saying, are we making an effort to showcase that people are properly represented in our marketing?” Palermo asks.
Interactive components where guests can leave their mark help create a positive and inclusive experience. Wise says this could include things like inviting guests to add a sketch to a participatory mural or add their photo to a photo wall. “Those are things that show me that I contribute, that show me that I’m not just included, but I actually belong here,” she says. If using participatory methods like these, operators need to continually perform quality checks and be prepared to remove rogue comments that could hurt feelings, and thus, be counterproductive.
By listening and responding to individuals’ needs, you’ll be better equipped to create positive experiences for employees and guests. “Everybody has different ways they like to conduct business or to have fun,” Gibbs says. “Our job is to make that person feel welcomed and engaged.”